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Joe Collier, former Broncos defensive coordinator and leader of famed ‘Orange Crush’ unit, dies at age 91

Joe Collier, a longtime Denver Broncos defensive coordinator and mastermind behind the team’s famed “Orange Crush” defense, has died, the team announced on Tuesday. He was 91 years old. 

Collier presided over three defenses that advanced to the Super Bowl during his time in Denver that spanned from 1972-88. Collier coached a bevy of Broncos defenders who are now in the team’s Ring of Fame. His best defensive player in Denver, former linebacker Randy Gradishar, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer. 

“Joe Collier is one of the most impactful coaches in the history of the Denver Broncos and regarded among the best defensive coordinators of all time,” the Broncos wrote in a statement. “Intelligent, modest and soft-spoken, Collier provided steady leadership to five different head coaches as the Broncos emerged as perennial contenders in the 1970s and 1980s.” 

Collier’s 3-4 defense (a lineup that features three defensive linemen and four linebackers) was one of the secret sauces behind the success of the “Orange Crush,” a unit led by Gradishar and fellow defensive stalwarts Lyle Alzado, Tom Jackson, Bill Thompson and Louis Wright. In 1977, Denver’s defense finished third in the NFL in points allowed during the regular season. In the playoffs, the Broncos contained the higher-powered Steelers and Raiders offenses in consecutive weeks as Denver reached the Super Bowl for the first time. 

In Super Bowl XII, the Broncos defense more than held its own against the star-studded Cowboys, led by future Hall of Famers Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and Drew Pearson. Denver held Dallas to less than 3.8 yards per carry, sacked Staubach five times and forced two turnovers. But the Broncos could not overcome their eight turnovers on offense, as Dallas prevailed to win its second Super Bowl of the decade. 

Collier’s unit continued to play well during the 1980s, as the Broncos defense did more than its part in helping the franchise reach back-to-back Super Bowls in 1986 and ’87. In fact, Collier’s defense authored one of the NFL’s most famous plays when defensive back Jeremiah Castille stripped the ball away from Browns running back Ernest Byner at the end of Denver’s victory over Cleveland in the 1987 AFC title game. 

Collier, who had a brief stint as Patriots defensive coordinator following his time in Denver, started his pro football coaching career with the Patriots in 1960. After two years with the Patriots, Collier went to Buffalo, where he served as a defensive assistant before being promoted to head coach, a role he served from 1966-68. 

Prior to coaching, Collier was an accomplished player. During his junior season at Northwestern, Collier was tabbed as an All-American after setting a Big Ten record for touchdown catches. He was selected by the Giants in the 1954 NFL Draft, but opted instead to go into coaching after serving three years in the U.S. Army.  

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